After Theresa May’s first Brexit deal was voted down in January, the British Prime Minister has again seen her deal rejected by the House of Commons, pushing the UK closer to ‘no deal’.
The UK has descended further into political chaos, with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal failing in the parliament in a 242 to 391 vote.
The margin of defeat, though smaller than January’s historic loss, was still the fourth biggest government defeat in the democratic era, reflecting an increasing divergence in opinions for both major parties over the terms of a Brexit deal.
While the Prime Minister had managed to draw some major concessions from Brussels since the last vote, she was ultimately unable to sway key voting blocs in the parliament. All but three members of the Labour Party voted against the deal, while the Democratic Unionist Party, a key backer of May’s government, voted against the deal.
The parliament will now vote on Thursday 14 March whether to delay its scheduled departure from the EU. If that is agreed to, then May will formally request that the process be delayed at an EU summit on 21 March. If it is not, the UK will leave the bloc on the 29 March without a deal, portending economic and political turmoil for the country.
In a statement after the defeat, May appeared frustrated, lambasting those who hoped to the prolong the process as “not solv[ing] the problems we face”.
“The EU will want to know what use we mean to make of such an extension,” she said. “This House will have to answer that question. Does it wish to revoke Article 50? Does it want to hold a second referendum? Or does it want to leave with a deal but not this deal?
These are unenviable choices, but thanks to the decision the House has made this evening they must now be faced.
Legal concerns over the Irish backstop
Having extracted concessions over the Irish backstop from Brussels, the Prime Minister had hoped to woo members of her own party to vote for her deal. That plan fell through though when attorney general Geoffrey Cox told the parliament that the risk of a permanent backstop remained unchanged and the country would therefore run the risk of keeping the UK too closely tied to the EU.
While May’s deal attempted to ensure that no hard border ever existed between Northern Ireland and Ireland, pro-Brexit Conservatives were unlikely to vote for any deal that did not promise a sharp break from the EU.
Indeed, Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the right-wing European Research Group and a prominent pro-Brexit rebel within the Conservative Party, argued that the deal “didn’t deliver on the commitment to leave the EU cleanly”.
Some pro-Brexit MPs have suggested pursuing the ‘Malthouse compromise’, a plan based on former Brexit minister Steve Baker’s protocol for leaving the EU. Essentially, the UK would be free to negotiate the details of a backstop and figure out a way to remove customs checks along the Irish border.
The compromise has won the endorsement of such key figures as Boris Johnson, who called it a “way forward” through the current stalemate.
“The UK observes single market rules and customs duties, we restrain our right to compete for three years, whilst we negotiate a free trade deal. I believe the EU would be open to this.”
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was dismissive though, referring to the compromise as “a dangerous illusion”.
Listening to debate in @HouseofCommons : there seems to be a dangerous illusion that the UK can benefit from a transition in the absence of the WA.
Let me be clear: the only legal basis for a transition is the WA. No withdrawal agreement means no transition.
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) March 12, 2019
“Let me be clear,” he wrote on Twitter. “The only legal basis for a transition is the WA. No withdrawal agreement means no transition.”
Disagreements over the Irish border have plagued Brexit negotiations. Though the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought peace to more than four decades of ethno-nationalist conflict in the region, the UK’s departure from the EU has brought great uncertainty to the arrangement.
While the EU and the UK have agreed that no hard border should be instituted between the two countries, pro-Brexiteers are unlikely to back any deal that facilitates a soft border.
Sinn Fein, the largest Irish republican party, which follows a policy of abstentionism – refusing to attend parliament or vote on bills, and does not seat its members in the UK parliament – said that the rejection of May’s deal showed “absolute disregard” for the Good Friday Agreement.
“The withdrawal agreement is imperfect but it is the only deal on offer,” said party leader Mary Lou McDonald. “The ‘backstop’ contained is a guarantee that no hard border will be imposed on this island and protects the Good Friday Agreement.
We are 17 days away from Brexit and the uncertainty and confusion continues.
Corbyn calls for a general election
With May’s government roiled by conflict over the deal, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for a general election, saying that “the government has been defeated again by an enormous majority.
“The Prime Minister has run down the clock, and the clock has run out on her,” he said. “Maybe it’s time instead that we have a general election and the people can choose who their government should be.”
Corbyn’s call for a general election comes mere weeks after he announced his support for a second referendum. That was considered a major shift for the Labour party, which has struggled to balance the concerns of working-class constituents in the north with voters in the south who generally oppose leaving the EU.
Still, the likelihood of Labour calling for another vote of no confidence is uncertain. Having survived a no confidence vote as recently as January, Theresa May cannot face an intraparty challenge for her leadership until December, per Conservative party rules.
With less than three weeks left before a ‘no deal’ Brexit, it’s unclear how the parliament will resolve ongoing issues. Though a second referendum and the Malthouse compromise have gained supporters, there remains no clear consensus over how the parliament will approach a resolution.
“We have done all that is possible to reach an agreement,” said a spokesman for president of the European council, Donald Tusk. “Given the additional assurances provided by the EU in December, January and yesterday, it is difficult to see what more we can do.
If there is a solution to the current impasse, it can only be found in London.